VIDEO: Walls broken, figuratively, at Bentonville High School

Posted: January 27, 2018 at 1:09 a.m.

Paula Ryburn (from left) and Sarah Young, both Bentonville High students, and Kevin York, a Bentonville High math teacher and assistant football coach, play a game where the group tries to move without dropping their straws Thursday during a morning of team-building activities as part of a Breaking Down the Walls session at Bentonville High School. Groups of roughly 150 students, faculty and staff from Bentonville High and Bentonville West High participated in the all-day programs this week, which are meant to develop appreciation of diversity and acceptance of others.

BENTONVILLE -- Some Bentonville High School students this week got to know a lot more about each other -- and maybe a little more about themselves -- during a culture and character building program.

Breaking Down the Walls is offered by Learning for Living, a company that helps school staff members change school climate and culture.

Program cost

Bentonville High School spent $14,000 to bring the Breaking Down the Walls program to campus for five days this week. It was paid for with money the school gets through its contract with Coca-Cola, according to Principal Jack Loyd. Close to 800 students, about a quarter of the school’s enrollment, participated.

Source: Staff report

A different group of between 150 and 200 people -- mostly students, but also some teachers -- arrived each morning this week at the West Gymnasium, where they spent their entire day with a Breaking Down the Walls facilitator.

Activities ranged from a game of tag to one-on-one conversations where students discussed personal topics, such as a favorite childhood memory or a time in their life they felt disrespected. In many cases, those conversations took place between students who had never talked to each other before.

Jason Jedamski, a former Bentonville High School administrator who left in 2013 for a job in his native Oklahoma, now works for Learning for Living. He served as facilitator Wednesday through Friday.

The goal of the program is to bring together students who may not associate with one another for a variety of reasons and get them to connect, Jedamski said.

"We're going to ask you to talk to people today," he said, as he introduced himself to those at Wednesday's session. "And most likely you will talk to someone you've never talked to before."

He led them through an exercise in which students practiced proper etiquette for greeting and talking to one another: Keep eye contact. Face each other. Maintain good posture.

He had students talk about times they felt respected and times they felt disrespected. He asked if they had ever disrespected someone else and urged them to apologize the next time they do so.

Perhaps the most emotional activity of the day came in the afternoon, when Jedamski had all participants stand on a line in the gym. He asked participants to "cross the line" and walk about 50 feet to another line on the court if the statement he read was something they agreed with or was something that matched their personal experiences.

Throughout the 30-minute activity, students silently acknowledged such things as having an awful relationship with a parent, battling depression, being sexually harassed, being homeless, having had a near-death experience and having let their parents down "in a big way." Some students could be seen wiping away tears by the end of the activity.

Students gathered in small groups afterward to discuss what they learned. Reconvening as a large group, they seemed to agree they should be more understanding and not be quick to judge each other.

Cassidy Goad, 18, said she made new friends at Wednesday's session.

"I also had a chance to open up about a few things I don't tell my friends very often, because I hide my feelings," said Goad, a senior. "But this is where you can open up, and no one will judge you. And I'm really happy it happened because it made my life just a whole lot easier, just to unload a lot of stuff I held in for so long."

Jack Loyd, Bentonville High's principal, said it was his idea to bring the program to the school, which serves a little more than 3,000 students.

"There are a lot of schools that just need a better culture. I think we have a good culture, but I think it could be better," Loyd said.

Loyd grew up in Bentonville and attended Bentonville High School at a time when almost all the students looked alike. The school is more diverse now than it was then, he said.

"I want our kids to be more aware of different cultures and different students in the building, but I want them to realize we have a lot more in common than we have in difference," he said.

Loyd pulled 25 percent of students from each grade level to participate. His aim was to get a cross-section of students.

Another portion of the program was called "acknowledgements," when students were invited to stand up and declare their admiration for others in the room. Ryan Jurik, 17, said he was "shocked" when another student stood up and called his name. The compliments aimed at him caused Jurik to get emotional.

"I didn't know anyone felt that way about me, or they even knew who I was," Jurik said. "It was very touching knowing someone appreciated what I do, and they recognize the impact I make at school."

He said he got a lot of feedback from people he wouldn't have guessed felt that way about him.

"It's a good way to see what other people go through and how we can make their lives better," Jurik said.

NW News on 01/27/2018